What Happens when the Machine Stops?

On good days, everything seems to run smoothly. My Internet connection is perky, my cellphone shows four bars, and the satellite TV pipes hundreds of channels into my home, for me to choose from as my mood changes. Bits and bytes rain down on me all day long, from wireless networks, cables and wires, and from satellites too distant to spot. Email gets here in seconds from anywhere around the world, and web pages load faster than I can read their headlines.

Yet those are the good days. There are other days when glitches in the system underscore the fragility of the entire grid. Yesterday, for example, after the heat reached the high 80s, powerful thunderstorms, as often seen here in the Alps, poured streams of water on my house for a couple of hours. At the same time, my DSL connection dropped, and the satellite TV showed nothing. While these down periods are rare, they happen. And that’s when things are running fine.What about the day that the machine stops? As prophesied by E. M. Forster in his 1909 story The Machine Stops, a society that depends too much on such tools will find it difficult to function if something big goes wrong. I recall the blackout in New York City on July 13, 1977, a hot and humid summer day when lightning struck two power lines, cutting off power for most of the city for twenty-four hours. The entire city was at a standstill, and many people simply lost control, looting and rioting, while others just sat around scratching their heads, wondering why there was such a reaction. And people didn’t have cellphones or Internet access back then. The more recent blackout in New York City, in August of 2003, had a shorter effect, with power being turned back on much quicker, but for those addicted to their Crackberries and cellphones, it must have been a tough day.

Today, I’m not thinking about the big machine stopping; I’m wondering about the smaller ones. Take, for example, any service from which you purchase digital content that uses DRM (digital rights management) to control your access. While you may think of iTunes or competing music services, or of Audible.com, the purveyor of audiobooks, you may also use software that needs to phone home from time to time to check your license. (This is relatively common with high-end vertical applications.) Even certain versions of Windows need to check with Microsoft’s servers to validate your operating system and allow you to work.

But let’s look more closely at the question of digital music and audiobooks. While I have few worries of Apple going out of business in the next decade or so (for music purchased from iTunes) or of Microsoft filing for Chapter 11 (Windows Media files are used by most competing music download services), smaller companies offer no long-term guarantee. Take Audible.com as an example. The company went through some tough times not long ago; imagine if it indeed went bankrupt (and I am not in any way suggesting that Audible will indeed go bankrupt or have any other problems). What would Audible users do to listen to the audiobooks they’ve purchased? While you generally only have to authorize your computer once, you still need to reauthorize if you buy a new computer. So in the case of a meltdown, you’d be able to listen to your audiobooks for a while, but when you got a new computer you’d be out of luck. (This assumes, of course, that Audible or any other such company is not bought out by a bigger fish who keeps the authorization scheme up and running.)

If the machine did stop, what rights would consumers have? While it’s trivial to “record” audio from a computer, using software designed to record what the computer is playing back, effectively saving audiobooks in other, non-DRMed formats, this violates copyright laws. Yet if a company such as Audible were to go belly-up, would consumers be in the wrong if they “converted” their audiobooks in this manner? The same goes for music; it’s easy to burn music to CDs then re-rip them in other formats–less so for audiobooks, given their length–would this be a violation of copyright? (In my opinion, no, since there would be no other way to access the content.)

As far as I know, there has yet to be a case where a company selling DRM-laden media has shut down in such a way as to affect users’ access to content they have purchased. But things happen, and, one day, one of these small machines is going to stop. What will we consumers be allowed to do? And how will we be able to do it? While I’m not against the concept of DRM to protect the rights of authors and distributors, I have to admit that this thought is worrisome. When you consider that you can still play any LPs you bought fifty years ago, and all the CDs you’ve bought since the 80s, the idea that you’ll be unable to listen to digital media after just a few years is chilling.

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